Our Week in the City of Bikes: Shkodër (Shkodra), Albania
Updated: Apr 1, 2022
Once we began our research on Albania, we knew there was going to be a lot to see. While there seemed to be incredible cities in Southern Albania, we decided our next stop would be in the north. We chose Shkodër because we needed to go to a little city 30 minutes away from Shkodër, Koplik.
If you are new here, we are Will & Katy, a couple who just began our world travels, with Albania being our first stop! Today we share the details of our trip to Shkodër (Shkodra) Albania in 2021! We explored the Rozafa Castle, went to Shiroka to get a better view of Lake Shkodër, rented bikes to visit the Mesi Bridge, and ended up seeing the bluest water that we have seen since being in Albania.
Since we were so new to world travel and had already gotten lost using local buses in Tirana, we took extra time trying to make sure we knew how to get to Shkodër. We did hear that there was a bus route to Shkodër, but it wasn't near the center of Tirana. When we asked, our friends who took us to Durrës, they gladly offered to drive us to Shkodër. Our friend Fabi had lived in Shkodër for a few years so he wanted to show us around the city.
It is about 95 kilometers away from Tirana, which is about a 1 hour and 45-minute drive. (Our friends hit bad traffic on the way back, so it took them much longer to return). On the way there we stopped in Lezhë, Fabi's hometown, for some lattes. This coffee spot had the same atmosphere as those in Tirana. As we drank our coffee over great conversations, Fabi told us this town had a castle on a hill. "Oh so you are the prince of this city then?" Will responded. We burst out in laughter! What a great feeling to be able to make friends during our travels. We never thought making friends with locals would come so easy. We insisted on paying for the coffee, but they refused. It is just a prime example of the hospitality of the Albanians.
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit anything else in Lezhë, but we do hope to return here one day. We continued on our way and 45 minutes later we arrived in Shkodër.
The city of Shkodër dates back to the 4th Century BC. It was settled by ancient Illyrian tribes. Today it is the 5th most populated city in Albania. Many artists and musicians come from here.
We pulled up to our Airbnb and as Will and I brought our bags to our apartment, Fabi and Alma parked their car. It seemed a bit colder than Tirana as we made our way towards the center of town. Fabi and Alma walked us down the streets, explaining that these are the oldest streets in the city. I pointed out a restaurant that caught my eye. It had bicycles being used as decor. Fabi said they are playing off the fact that Shkodër is known as the city of bikes. Once he said that I couldn't help but notice the number of people riding bikes.
He showed us the church he attended while living here, and explained the history of religion in Albania. During communist times the Albanians did not have freedom of religion. In 1967 it was actually declared an Atheist country, but in 1991 with the end of the communist reign, the freedom of religion began. Families resorted back to what their parents and grandparents believed. Fabi said that he had noticed many of the younger generations taking the time to figure out what they believe instead of just resorting to whatever their family believed.
As we walked deeper into town, we kept bumping into people that Fabi knew. It felt like we were with a local celebrity, making our "prince of the castle" comment from earlier, fitting. We passed by the University he attended on the way to our dinner spot. Fabi had fond memories of this restaurant and wanted to treat us, once more, to dinner.
With bellies full, it was the perfect time for Fabi and Alma to head back to Tirana, but before they left we asked them to help us with the intro to our Shkodër Travel Vlog, mainly because we had issues saying "Shkodër." With grateful hearts, we said our goodbyes.
When I think of a castle on a hill I think of Ireland, not Albania, but the next day we were off to see our first castle on a hill. Rozafa Castle was only a short 3 km away, so we decided to walk. We made stops at shops, cafes and simply just admired the people of Shkoder going about their normal day. There were men riding bikes, perhaps to work, and families walking up to a bakery to grab some byreks for breakfast.
When we approached a big brown road sign that pointed toward Rozafa Castle, we assumed it was the next intersection, but we discovered that the road was back by the sign. We're used to a road sign telling you that the next intersection is where you turn to visit a landmark. In this case, the sign was either made for pedestrians, or all Albanians knew to make a U-turn down the road. Either way, we did not walk too far past the road that led to the castle. As we made our slight backtrack, we walked down a side street parallel to the highway. At a distance, we began hearing dogs bark, which is not something out of the ordinary, but as we approached the barking dogs inside of a fence, we noticed they were massive and looked like wolves! The fence wasn't helping too much, since they could fit their bodies partially out of the metal bars. Thank goodness they were attached to chains. We don't mind dogs, but when a dog is that big and barking like they want to attack us, it gets a little frightening.
We hurried past the barking dogs and saw another sign and we knew we were back on track. Since this is a castle on a hill, it was quite a hike up to the entrance. Once we got up to the ticket booth we saw there were cars parked just outside. We weren't the only visitors on this Friday morning. The entrance fee to get into Rozafa Castle was 400 Lek ($3.66 USD) a person. So affordable!
As we approached the main gate of the castle, we were blown away by how huge it was. We cautiously walked through the first corridor, on a cobblestone pathway, hearing pigeons hiding inside and water droplets falling to the ground. We begin to explore this massive castle that takes up the entire hilltop. The walls towering over me, giving me no views of the city at all, until we found some smaller openings. I imagined they used to look out for intruders while still allowing protection from a cannonball or other weaponed attacks.
As we explored, we found signs and maps to help show us what was inside the castle. Prior to visiting the castle, we did do some research, so we knew that it was surrounded by two big rivers, the Buna and Drinks River. Once we got deeper into the castle, we found some beautiful open spaces where we were able to get some incredible views of the whole city of Shkodër, the snow-capped Albanian Alps, the rivers, and Lake Shkodër.
Towards the center of the castle was a big building that was still very well intact; a church. It began as a Catholic Church when the Romans took over Albania and then became a Mosque when the Ottoman Empire took over Albania. After walking through it, we decided to fly our drone. It was pretty windy, so we weren't sure if we were going to be able to fly it. Unfortunately, we never found out because as Will powered on the drone, an error message popped up on his screen, saying no memory card was found. Frustration kicked in as I realized I never put the memory card back into the drone after downloading the last flight's videos. Lesson learned and now we always carry spare memory cards!
We packed the drone and finished up exploring the rest of the castle, which went on and on with mostly open space. We saw jails, cisterns/wells, and some brave souls climbing to the top of the castle walls to pose for photos. In the inner parts of the castle were a restaurant and a museum, which cost extra to enter. We passed up on both, as we already knew about the spooky legend associated with this castle...
The short version: there were 3 brothers who were in charge of building the castle. They worked hard, but the walls kept falling down. Then a wise old man appeared and told them that the wife of whichever brother brought them food the next day must be buried alive inside of the wall of the castle in order for the walls to remain up forever. They all promised the man they would not tell their wives, but the older 2 brothers broke their promise and told. The younger brother did not tell his wife, so she wound up being the one to bring them food the next day. Keeping his word, he told his wife that she needed to be sacrificed and buried in the walls of the castle. Her name was Rozafa. A life-size sculpture of Rozafa buried within the walls is in this museum.
As great as exploring this castle was, it was time to head to our next location for the day.
We couldn't get a proper view of Lake Shkodër from the city, so we decided to make our way out of town to Shiroka / Shirokë. Lake Shkodër is not only the largest lake in the Balkans, it is the largest lake in all of Southern Europe. The lake is on the border between Albania and Montenegro.
We began our walk and quickly realized that this route is better by bike and best by car. The walk from the Castle to Shiroka was long but really nice. The goal was to get to a large opening of the lake. The Buna River flows into Lake Shkodër so we walked along the water the entire time, passing by other locals enjoying a walk or bike ride. While the river was to the right of us, there was plenty to see to the left of us; homes with smoke rising from the chimneys, livestock in open fields, kids playing ball, and unfinished homes, which piqued our curiosity.
We later did some research on this and found out that these were multi-story homes, right off of the river, where you would have no neighbors. Apparently, after communism in Albania ended, there was a lack of regulation on the country's introduction to a private party. During communism, citizens could not own anything, so this whole concept was brand new. Developers ran types of pyramid schemes to attract investors and offer high returns that would never be able to be realized. This resulted in concrete buildings going up not just in Shiroka, but all over Albania. When the money ran out, the building stopped, and these beautiful concrete structures remained unfinished.
About an hour later we approached the city of Shirkoka, which was flooded! Cars were turning around to try and find a different way into town and many restaurants were blocked off as we zig-zagged our way into town.
Due to not having proper river walls and maybe being too close to sea level, when it does rain or the tide rises the river (and further down the lake) it floods into the city. We noticed earlier on our way to Rozafa castle some flooding. When in the castle looking down into the city we saw even more parts of the land flooded. There were businesses that could no longer be accessed due to the high water between the parking lot and the front door. One shopping center had laid crates and sandbags on the ground to allow people to enter, but most had to close down. This flooding affected stores, restaurants, and even a few playgrounds.
After admiring this massive Lake with the mountains as its backdrop, we did find one restaurant that was open. Thank God because we were hungry! It had 4.5 stars out of 5 and 35 reviews. When we got there we saw why. First off they were in a good position because they were across the street from the lake and their restaurant was elevated, requiring steps to access it. The name of the restaurant was Xhaka Restaurant Bar and they could not make us feel more like we were in their home. The owner personally came out to take our order.
There was no menu, or maybe there was but it was in Albanian. The owner told us he usually prepares fish and/or meat for tourists. We placed our order. As we waited for our food, we watched the locals. Not in a creepy way, we just love seeing how people in other countries interact. The table next to us was having a great time. There we 3 older gentlemen sharing fish, laughs, and a huge carafe of red wine.
The owner himself brought out our meal-- a whole baked fish like we had in Durrës and a side of what they called potatoes, which were actually French fries. The food filled our empty bellies and we were satisfied. When we got the check we ended up a little short on Lek. Since there were no menus we didn't know the price. The owner did not make us feel bad, we even offered to wash the dishes to make up for it. The owner leaned over to Will, pinched him on the cheek and said it was okay because he owned the restaurant. After thanking him immensely, we left the restaurant, but before we were even out of sight he invited us back in for some complimentary coffees. Not only were we not shamed for being short on cash, but we were also treated to free coffee. The hospitality and warmth of Albanians is just incredible!
With happy hearts and full bellies, we began our walk back to Shkoder. By the time we reached our apartment our poor feet were screaming at us! This was at the start of our travels, so we were not used to all this walking, I looked down at my Apple Watch which said we walked 11 miles that day! It was time to rest up and crack open that bottle of homemade wine our Airbnb host had left for us.
I woke up in the middle of the night with an uneasy feeling. I rushed to the bathroom and made it to the toilet just in time. Everything I ate that day, came right up. The rest of the night I tossed and turned, not feeling myself. The next day was forced to be a rest day. I had no idea why I felt this way, an achy body, and an upset stomach. Nothing more. We didn't think it was food poisoning, because Will didn't get sick. I was texting with a friend that suggested maybe it was altitude sickness. Regardless, after a day, I was feeling much better. Not 100% yet, so we waited one more day before our next sightseeing day because it was going to require us riding bikes.
The Mesi Bridge was our next site to visit. It's not exactly in Shkodër, but a town right outside of the city. With a distance of 9 km, we decided we would be like the locals and ride bikes to the bridge.
We found a bike shop, Bicyclist Bujari, on Google Maps with about 35 reviews. They said that the owner was friendly and spoke good English. Although we were trying to learn some Albanian, we were by no means fluent. We arrived at the shop and spotted the owner right away because someone had posted a picture of him on their Google review. He was so helpful, spoke English, and set us up with bikes right away.
He confirmed the price we saw online; that the fee was 100 Lek ($0.91) per hour or 500 Lek ($4.57) per day per bike. As Americans we were used to paying upfront for any kind of rental, but here he just asked for our driver's license and then told us we would pay when we returned the bikes.
Once we had our bikes, Will quickly hopped on, as I struggled to get my balance. It had been a while since we had biked and the saying "just like riding a bike," did not feel very accurate to me at that moment. However, after a couple of minutes, I guess I got the hang of it, and the old saying was right.
I strapped the Go Pro to the front of my bike and we headed northeast toward the city of Mes. Besides the pain of a non-padded bike seat, we enjoyed the ride out to the bridge. We were able to truly appreciate the view of the Albanian Alps. Along the way, we saw horses and buggies, cows, and even a herd of goats. We passed by many locals, feeling like we were one of them! As we pulled up to the driving bridge next to the Mesi bridge we were blown away by the view!
The Mesi Bridge is one of the largest Ottoman bridges that still exists today. It was built around 1770 and was constructed in 2 phases. The first phase was just the middle arch. This had to be big enough to cover the Kir river which flows beneath it. The second phase was to construct the rest of the bridge and the 11 arches that it includes. We read that the Albanian Development Fund invested 13 million Lek for steps so that tourists could access the bridge, and boy were we happy they did!
We set our bikes to the side as we made our way onto the Mesi Bridge. As we looked out on the bridge. We were there at just the right time of year to see the rushing blue water flowing down from the mountains. When we were doing research, we noticed that the bridge was dry for some people. Thankfully for us, the river was flowing. The water was blue and clear; like the water we saw in Mexico. This was surprising because most of the water we saw in the rivers around Tirana were darker and more murky.
Our guess as to why it dries out sometimes is because the river is created from the melting snow from the Albanian Alps. Others may have visited in the Summer when there is no ice or snow to melt and create the river. We visited in Mid-February and the mountains at the time definitely were covered in snow.
After flying the drone to get some views from above (and yes we did have our memory card this time), we sat down to eat the packed lunch I had brought. Life is different out here. As we ate, I thought to myself about how much simpler it seemed. I can only think of one other time I went on a picnic while being back in the states. I'd say this was a perfect picnic spot and it is hands-down more than just that. Locals seemed to agree as we saw a couple arriving with a photographer for their post-ceremony wedding pictures.
We packed everything up and made our way back toward town; to the bike shop. We did not reach the daily threshold on our bike rental (we only had the bikes for about 3.5 hours). So the shop owner gave us the hourly price and returned our license with no problems.
We spent our last couple of days in Shkodër, walking the local streets, looking for delicious Albanian desserts, and figuring out how we would get to our next location; where I would be getting a tattoo!
Until next time... What could possibly be next?
Bring Shkodër, Albania to life by watching our travel vlog. Out now on YouTube!
See how we explored the Rozafa Castle, went to Shiroka to get a better view of Lake Shkodër, and rented bikes to visit the Mesi Bridge and to see the bluest water that we have seen since being in Albania. All in Shkodër (Shkodra) Albania!
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